The sad truth is that Gates can’t free himself from the forces that are draining away his creativity. The world won’t let him go to the margins. He’s trapped in the silicon handcuffs of his own success. So he deserves sympathy. Not because he’s lost his power, but because he’s lost control of his life.
The demands on him just keep mounting. He is called upon to define the new frontiers of innovation.He also must notch big victories with his philanthropic foundation, now the world’s richest. Gates recently admitted, “I’m doing a lot more philanthropy than I expected to at a young age.” His early decisions seem uninspired: diseases in the developing world and university education for minority students. Worthy causes, but well-established (even moldy) ones, where Gates can’t lead; he can only hand out big checks like the billion
dollars he gave to the United Negro College Fund.
These gestures are meant to satisfy the public’s desire to see Gates act like a philanthropist-while still limiting the insistent claims on his time that would result from being a fulltime foundation chief. But they are likely only to heighten the pressures on him to serve as an all-purpose savior. On a smaller scale, all successful innovators face this pressure in a world obsessed with the power and promise of technology. Not only must the innovator find the proper role for themselves in a company, or even an industry, spawned by their efforts. They must also work to defy society’s image of them as the Newly Selfish.
Gates, of course, may somehow evade this trap. Like a cyber version of Picasso or Frank Sinatra, he may find ways to reinvent himself in his medium of choice. It is surely possible for even an icon to stay sharp. Look at Paul Allen, cofounder of Microsoft and Gates’ childhood pal. Allen left Microsoft years ago and, while a super-billionaire himself, dodges the limelight. Perhaps for this reason he has shown a flair for quixotic projects: founding a museum for the late rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix; buying sports teams; peripatetic investing in the industries that spawn the digital age. His life lacks coherence, but it gives off brilliant sparks.
Allen reminds me of the time when I asked Gates if he would ever buy a jazz music label, a book publisher, a movie studio or in some other way indulge a private passion of his (this was six years ago, when I was regularly reporting on Microsoft). Gates looked at me blankly, then repeated his mantra that he would stay focused on software.
A sensible answer. But the wrong one if he wants to doff the handcuffs. Gates’ unwillingness to pursue the frivolous and unexpected stands as a warning to all proven innovators. Only by making fools of themselves can they escape the prison of success.